Pakistan’s authorities must deliver long-promised reform to end state-sanctioned enforced disappearances and finally bring the country in line with international human rights law and standards, said Amnesty International, on the UN’s International Day for Victims of Enforced Disappearance.
A proposed amendment bill to the Pakistan Criminal Penal Code to outlaw the practice – in which the state denies holding an individual or refuses to provide information on their fate or whereabouts, has remained pending for more than two and a half years. Enforced disappearances have been routinely used as a tool by Pakistan’s intelligence services since the inception of the so-called “War on Terror” in 2001, to target human rights defenders, political activists, students, and journalists, with the fate of hundreds of victims still unknown, according to victim groups and families.
Enforced disappearances have long been a stain on Pakistan’s human rights record, causing untold anguish to hundreds of families.Dinushika Dissanayake, Deputy Director for South Asia
The most recent amendment bill, which is currently under parliamentary review, contains fundamental flaws and falls short of meeting the minimum requirements of international law, which strictly prohibits enforced disappearances.
“Enforced disappearances have long been a stain on Pakistan’s human rights record, causing untold anguish to hundreds of families. Despite this fact being acknowledged repeatedly by the current government, the continuation of the practice sends mixed signals to the groups desperate to learn the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. That no one has been held accountable despite all these moves, is also cause for concern,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for South Asia.
“When it was announced in January 2019, the proposed reform offered hope that the political will to finally outlaw enforced disappearances might exist. Two and a half years on, we have a watered-down proposal that falls short of what was promised.”
The current amendment bill falls short of standards set by international law in a number of areas, particularly with regard to the scope of the law identifying who the perpetrator can be. It only prohibits enforced disappearances committed against a Pakistani national or in Pakistan, disregarding instances of Pakistanis who could be responsible for an enforced disappearance abroad, potential foreign victims, and those cases when the alleged offender is present in any territory under the jurisdiction of Pakistan, as provided by international law. The bill also only applies to cases when ‘an unlawful or illegal deprivation of liberty’ has taken place, failing to recognize that enforced disappearances may be committed even after a lawful detention or arrest. Similarly, the bill also does not recognize that state knowledge, acquiescence, or support of a disappearance is not necessarily required for the act to be criminal.
Likewise, the amendment bill does not clearly define its mandate and does not specify under which legal structure victim families will be able to file a complaint, how compensation will be determined, and what retrospective effect the amendment will have, if any.
The amendment bill was presented before parliament by the Ministry of Human Rights on 7 June. It currently sits with the Standing Committee on Interior in the National Assembly, which has yet to provide any feedback almost three months on. Just weeks after the reform was presented, on 26 June, political activist Seengar Noonari was abducted by the authorities.
Amnesty International is also calling on the Pakistani authorities to promptly adhere to the International Convention for the Protection of All of Persons from Enforced Disappearance, without making any reservation to its text, and immediately disclose the whereabouts and fate of those still missing.
“Enforced disappearances have left an indelible and painful legacy in Pakistan. To move forward from this past, the authorities need to not only expedite these reforms, but also be completely transparent about the fate of all those abducted by state agents and other groups, and start holding perpetrators accountable,” said Dinushika Dissanayake.
Pakistan has made some limited progress towards proscribing enforced disappearances. Recent verdicts by the Islamabad High Court have set precedents for compensation for families of victims of enforced disappearances and fines for law enforcement agencies. However, it is not clear if these have been implemented.
Seengar Noonari was returned to his family five weeks after being subject to enforced disappearance.
For more information about enforced disappearances in Pakistan, see here.